In the double abbeys of Fontevraud and Remiremont, the medieval abbesses, who governed all, followed strange rituals, typical of druids and not of Catholic nuns.
This may be one of the evidences that in the medieval France some reminiscences of the ancient Druidic culture still survived among the aristocratic classes. Some of these aspects continued to stay around as narrative forms, like the Grail phenomenology and the Troubadours literature, to fade out later like all literary trends. In the meanwhile, others braved the religious-political powers, disguising into them, like the Cathar heresy, the Knights Templar order and the less-known phenomenon of the Druidic abbesses of certain monasteries. But long before the establishment had ferociously raged at the first two groups (and to this extent it is fair to be remembered that the Knights Templar order had previously agreed, together with the Hospitaliers, to the massacres of heretics in Languedoc, physically placing their signature to give a green light to the King’s military campaign) it is easy to imagine the phenomenon of abbesses-druids, having no organized warrior groups to defend them, would be silenced sooner or later. In fact, this weird custom was bloodlessly abolished by simple Papal measures, long before Jacques de Molay ascended the stake, as the first official ecclesiastic anxiety symptoms were already present in the Council of Orange in 441 A.D., followed by Orleans in 529. And eventually ratified in 1139, by the second Lateran Council.
The above mentioned historical, religious, and artistic phenomena might directly descend from the Celtic priestly world, that’s to say from the Druids, instead of seeking their origins either in cultural contamination during the Crusades, or in Christian esotericism that hardly ever existed. It sounds plausible that Cathars and Templars esoteric knowledge can be traced back to what had survived of the Druids wisdom. It appears that the French Cathars’ and Knights Templar’s peculiarity might just derive from their French aristocratic origin. From the procedural acts against Cathars and Knights Templar we know that they were accused of having become a sort of “super religion”, needing a certain “super sacrament”, and, to cap it all, carried on within certain lineages, or bloodlines. But this was not the first persecution suffered by the Druidic aristocracy. In fact we know that the Romans engaged fiercely to completely erase Druidic influence from their empire. And this strange commitment continued in the following centuries, even after the official end of the Roman Empire, both of West and East.
But why I’m so interested in French aristocracy? The first reason is their cultural distinctness. For instance, we know that Iulius Caesar got shocked when discovered that Druids used to write in Greek. We know that in medieval and renaissance times, during the Vatican prohibition of the Greek language teaching (and learning, of course), nevertheless the French upper classes have always been more comfortable with Greek language than with Latin, contrary to the Italian upper classes. In this sense, only in Italy we can speak of rediscovery of the classical Greek texts – while in Paris university, during the “dark” Medieval ages, Plato’s Timaeus, a treatise pregnant of alchemical notions, was already officially taught. Additionally, we must not forget their involvement in the Grail phenomenology, as well as in the Troubadours Literature, and the Rennes le Chateau affair (1). Which I love to merge.
In Gaul, already during the roman occupation, Christians prevailed among town citizens and large property aristocracy. But, still in Merovingian age, the countryside was largely untouched pagan. Irish missionaries were sent to manage and organize the fields and, with them, the villagers. The double abbey of Saint-Pierre de Remiremont was founded by St. Amé (disciple of St. Columban) and Romaric (monk of Luxeuil) in Merovingian age, 620 A.D., and led by abbesses. The nuns were living on the top of the hill, the monks in the valley. During the first two centuries the abbesses implemented the ascetic St. Columban’s rite (having much in common with the later Cathar rite). The nuns were all from aristocracy and had to prove their 16 quarters of nobility to enter their service.
The will to abolish any form of the female diaconate pursued continuously in five councils, clearly shows the strong roots and the unusual role of this institution in the Celtic churches. In the Catholic Encyclopedia, the ecclesiastic officials summarize the Celtic high Middle ages abbesses and deaconesses silent existence with bare words: ” As the Celtic tradition respected women, the double monasteries of that period were led by abbesses ( to an abbess always succeeded an abbess). Monks provided security for the nuns. Exceptionally, an abbot could rule over the monks and an abbess over nuns. After 1139 (second Lateran council) almost all the double monasteries became single”. But these are just records concerning the canonical jurisdiction, what the Catholic Encyclopedia doesn’t mention are the nuns strange rituals that were pagan.
But the true wisdom has no racial and geographic characteristics, we know that the ancients were traveling more than one might think today. So, if the deaconesses were a Celtic custom, the Catholic Encyclopedia forget to mention that the double monasteries ( male and female together) were common in Palestine and Egypt during the early Christian age. This type of organization sprang in the area in the same time of the first Christian cenobites, and it was due to women’s necessity to have some men around for practical purposes. Within these monasteries there might be family cenobites, where the husband led the men’s community and his wife the women’s one. Commonly there were tasks in common; for instance, men were involved in construction and women in garments manufacturing.
From “Aspetti del monachesimo femminile nel mondo celtico”, or aspects of women’s monasticism in the Celtic world, by Nuccio d’Anna’s conference in 2009:
St. Columban, the founder of Remiremont abbey and of the rite that it would follow for at least two centuries, came from Ireland, country that had a great tradition for priestesses. The vast monastery of Kildare, perhaps the most important community of nuns that ever arose in Ireland, stood on the same site where in ancient times was the sanctuary of the goddess Brigit. Rededicated and “converted”, it became the place where the famous monastic community founded by St Brigitte developed, it was ever since a “double” monastery that was inhabited enigmatically by men and women, according to a custom that today may seem absolutely strange, but back then it appears to have had a great widespread, as documents attested. The prestige of Brigitte was enormous. According to a pious tradition which evidently tended to give consistency to her unusual (for today) authority simultaneously spiritual and canonical; having the bishop recited by mistake the episcopal consecration on the head of a virgin nun, he could not undo the effects of the consecration formula, having the sacrament of Ordination a lasting value, so from that moment on the holy began to waft even the aura of the only “bishop-woman” of Ireland. This is not a mere anecdote and it is also likely that this story has surfaced only in the folk part of a deep-rooted sacramental reality. Besides, this also passed such a privilege to all subsequent abbesses of Kildare monastery, to continue enigmatically to exercise an authority that was at least equal (but often higher) than that of their bishop. It was only with the Synod of Kells in 1152 that such extraordinary privilege was finally abolished and returned to the modern canonical prescriptions on the ecclesial hierarchy structure which, as you know, today totally withheld the “quasi-episcopal” role of the abbesses.
If one considers the deep Druidic rooting in the past of the populations of these regions, it seems that, through the Christian institution of deaconesses, peculiar form that organized women’s monasticism, it was intended to readjust, transfiguring them in a contemplative environment of pure asceticism and ” virginal offer”, the archaic pre-Christian type of para-priestly habits that in the old days had allowed also the women of ancient Celtic society to take important sacred roles, very often connected to the rituals that involved clairvoyance, divination, poetic creation and the recitation of the cosmogony, such as bandrui (“the druid”), banfaith (“the woman-prophet”), banfile (“the woman-poet”). Together with definable female communities, that almost always had around some noble girls converted, and later became famous for the rigor and sanctity of their life, there existed in Ireland and Scotland also significant number of “double monasteries” where monks-men and consecrated virgin-maidens were present simultaneously.
And yet, that was considered for a long time as an Irish monasticism specifics, as a way to try to protect, in a rough and violent society, lonely virgins with the closeness of men who had taken a vow of celibacy. In reality, things are a bit different, of course. When trying to understand their true nature and very special status, one can not ignore the strong links with the apostolic activity of the Celtic pilgrims. On the other hand, there survived very strong evidences of a long history of intense monastic “double” life that can also be found on the continent, still blooming in twelfth century, and a famous case of that is one of Evoriac community governed by the rule of Celtic St. Columban , who later became the well-known Faremoutiers monastery.